I tell the story of how The Kate Spade Company plagiarised my work, and what bothered me about it the most. Content Warning: suicide, depression.
In 2018, my favourite fashion designer, Kate Valentine Spade, took her own life.
Online, people reacted with comments like: so sad, I’m shocked, I love my handbag, here’s what my handbag means to me. In my own grief, I felt compelled to say something, fast, to honour her, and to voice my concerns about the absence of mental illness from this discourse.
With each handbag tribute, I grew more frustrated about how her suicide was being talked about like a tragic fluke accident. Of course, I don’t know the circumstances of her personal experience with mental illness, but this felt like an opportunity for the fashion industry to raise awareness about such an important issue. To put it bluntly: the stigma around mental illness is deadly. Kate Valentine Spade was famously cheerful and whimsical and, to the public, it was unfathomable that she could be anything else. Everyone’s reactions seemed to be more about their shock than her death. But she seemed so happy!
The tone of grief felt off. Since no one else was talking about mental illness, I made myself write about it.
I pushed myself to publish through my own pain. Opening up about my own journey with depression beyond my comfort level, I implored readers to consider the changes we must make as a society to address the seriousness of mental illness.
Writing this wiped me out for several months, but it felt necessary. Urgent. I grasped at this moment to make meaning out of pain I had experienced personally – that if I shared my story, no matter how raw it still felt, it would make my years of suffering worth something. Later I learned that art doesn’t have to hurt. Later I learned that I don’t need to ‘make up for’ my pain by completing a project about it.
For my health, it was a mistake to write this before I was ready. But it was something else that would haunt me six months later.
The Kate Spade Company carries on without its founder, as it had for years before her death. They were – and still are – imitating her whimsy to sell products. I believed them, believed that they were carrying on what was born from her heart. I believed their marketing campaigns, their clever videos, imagery, and lifestyle books.
Then I saw my words, taken from my essay on Kate Spade’s suicide, in their marketing email.
“2019 is the year to be your own heroine”, it said. As you may have gathered from the title of this website, exploring what it means to be your own heroine is my life’s work. In the essay, I had said that Kate, and the company she started, remind me to be the heroine of my own story. When I saw that they had taken these words, my heart sank and my head feebly chimed in: it could be a coincidence!
But this wasn’t the first time something like this had happened; it was just the most obvious.
I had once prized a fact that now felt foreboding: the company’s CMO followed 120 people on Twitter and I was one of them. I had given a speech at their San Francisco store on being the heroine of your own story, and followed up digitally, hoping to get something out of it, hoping to be invited to their glamorous Christmas party at least.
A year before, in 2017, I promoted my Leading Lady programme on social media, while also trying to catch the company’s eye. I was among the few dutifully using their seasonal hashtags. Several weeks later my Heroine Training marketing language appeared in their catalogue, a theatre-themed campaign for non-theatre merchandise: “meet the leading ladies!” It said. In this case, the leading ladies were not women, but shoes.
Back to 2019, the year to be your own heroine, I was hurt, but hoped it would blow over. When the ball dropped at midnight this countdown campaign would go away. Quietly, I Unsubscribed, Unfollowed, and Blocked the CMO.
It wasn’t over. My words were delegated to their social media bios, where they still remain: “we are all the heroines of our own stories.” I felt betrayed by a company I admired. I felt frozen, unable to speak up against such a big powerful corporation and be believed. I didn’t know if I wanted to seek vengeance or partnership. So I didn’t say anything. I slowly replaced every item of their merchandise in my wardrobe and am currently looking for a tailor to repurpose my wedding dress as my own (labels cut out).
For the longest time I wanted to believe this was a mistake.
My words must have gotten passed around until the source dropped off, and my invitation to the Christmas party got lost in the post.
I spoke to a few small business lawyers who basically said tough luck. I learned how expensive it would be to protect my intellectual property, how I would have to trademark not just “Heroine Training” but every iteration of the phrase I wanted to claim, thousands of dollars each. This made me think that maybe what the company did was deliberate, the way they awkwardly pluralised the words to avoid exact replication of my wording.
In my creative life, I shifted towards being an artist rather than a ‘small business owner’. I met a copyright professor whose work focuses on how the law can protect artists, an angle I hadn’t considered before. I told her what happened, and was surprised when she believed me, right away. She informed me that exploiting small artists is a common strategy big companies use. I had heard about companies like Urban Outfitters mass-producing designs lifted from independent Etsy artists, but I never drew the connection between this kind of theft and what happened to me. My heart sank for a different reason this time, in realisation of how much I undervalued my right to own my own words.
As a blogger, I was used to the dirty tricks of the trade – of being used and abused, always expected to be of service.
Unknowingly, I had taken up so much free marketing work for other companies. Most of us had – sharing photos wearing the garment, using the product. I am especially a-tune to it now that I’m off social media. When I receive a product I’ve purchased, it comes with a prompt to share and tag. I used to take pride in being a loyal customer, carrying a sense of obligation to follow through and spread the word. I get it, as an entrepreneur and performing artist: it’s so great to get audience feedback! But I also know this: audience feedback is a gift. It is precious to share that moment of connection. Big companies like Kate Spade take from their customers, and repurpose the gift under the guise of having made it from scratch. My words are to share, but not to provide free ‘authenticity’.
I wanted their attention, the glamour they so expertly promised. I wanted to be included. Their campaigns enticed me into believing that if I took a good enough photo, I could be welcomed into their exclusive club.
It’s been a hurtful awakening. It took years to realise what disappoints me the most. Now I know: it’s their empty words.
At first I wanted credit. If you’re going to quote me, put my words in quotations. But most of all, I care about what the words promise. I want the concept of commitment to ‘being our own heroines’ to be widespread. After all, I myself picked up a phrase – ‘heroine in training’ – from Jane Austen, and brought it into the 21st century. If the Kate Spade Company actually implemented the mission of us ‘all being the heroines of our own stories,’ I wouldn’t mind as much, because it’s a pretty great mission. If I do say so myself. Instead, they use the words superficially, to earn sales.
Maybe I wouldn’t have felt so sick, if they took my idea and made it grow. It would have been even better if they wanted to work with me to make that happen. I still read between the lines of their poorly worded bio: ‘who we are is intertwined with who you are. We are all the heroines of our own stories.’ My head tilts to the side at this dark contradiction, which is also highly insensitive, considering their founder’s method of suicide. Surely they know this?!
I am grounded enough in myself to not need their approval. I am still bothered by their words, still in those social media bios, a pale imitation of my life’s work. But I am not debilitated by it. I know that I am original and sincere.
Back then, I took action by getting away from the word ‘blogger’. It came with the implied job description ‘free marketing tool’. The final straw was my disappointment in a job I thought was a dream come true. I was appointed Blogger in Residence for my former favourite bookshop. I was so excited, to get paid to blog about reading and collaborate with an independent shop. But when my role began, I was pressured to push product. Their Poet in Residence never was.
My column for them was called ‘The Reading Habit’, because they took my first idea, ‘Read More,’ and turned it into a service to sell. I didn’t mind this, because I too wish to help people read more, and the subscription sounded like an even better way to do this. They assigned me to write about the service I titled, and when I asked to try it first, they said I was asking too much of them. It took several months of chasing them up to receive payment for the work I did.
What’s in a name?
I took the word ‘fashionably’ out of my website title to avoid being confused for a fashion blogger. I stopped calling myself a ‘blogger’ to avoid being used. I stopped calling myself an ‘author,’ because people would measure my success on whether I had a book on a physical shelf, which was not my priority. I switched to ‘essayist,’ to claim my favoured form — but really? No word, no perfect job description, no catchy elevator pitch will ever fully explain the essence of what I do. And I’m finally okay with that. I finally feel free. I finally realised that no perfect summation of my work will stop those in power from exploiting small artists. For years I was gaslit into believing that these things happened to me because of how I presented myself and my work. I refuse to believe that anymore. My mission to support the arts starts with myself, by declaring my own art worthy of support.
My job title at present is Protagonist.
I define ‘protagonist’ on my own terms. That is what it is to be a heroine in training. I am a writer, an artist, a blogger, and whoever I choose to be today, as the main character of my life. In owning that aspect of myself, I am beyond okay – because I know for certain that I am unstoppable, and un-copyable.
I have learned that ‘selling things’ is not innately evil. Marketing can be meaningful and authentic. When one company’s lack of authenticity is called out, it makes all of us entrepreneurs look bad. When I make choices for my business, I want to make us all look good. When I make decisions, I seek to set standards for how other artists should be treated and paid fairly. When I say no to unfair expectations, it helps not just me, but the next artist approached after me.
I’m not trying to catch anybody’s eye anymore.
I am showing up as I am, creating what I want to create. I dropped the ego boost of collecting passive likes and follows on social media. I don’t need them, because I know my work is good. I have wonderful Readers who remind me of this too. Readers have stayed through my many evolutions. I am grateful for my Patrons, who invest in my work and trust me to create what is best and right. They remind me, prove to me every day that my work is worthy of payment, and that what I’m creating is worth protecting.
It is important to find words that connect and resonate. But words are only connectors. They carry potential to take us somewhere. So use my words if they’re so good you can’t resist, but only if it takes the reader somewhere worth going. And if it is? By all means, bring me with you.
Until the Next Chapter,
thank you to grace quantock, my therapist, and the aforementioned copyright law professor. 💗
thank you to my early readers (E & K) 💗
thank you to mama, sister, and my many loyal friends who helped me through this. 💗
thank you again, to my Readers and Patrons 💗